Estonia emerged as a top performer on PISA 2012, ranking 11th in reading and math and 6th in science among all PISA participating countries and regions. Among EU countries, Estonia ranked 2nd in math and science and 4th in reading. The country improved on that performance in 2015, ranking 3rd in the world—and 1st in Europe—in science, 9th in the world and 2nd in Europe in mathematics, and 6th in the world and 3rd in Europe in reading. In addition, Estonian performance is remarkably equitable with respect to social class. Estonia has among the highest percentages of resilient students in the OECD, and Estonian students in the lowest decile of PISA performance perform higher than the average student in the industrialized world. This is a remarkable achievement for a country that only gained independence in 1992. Since that year, the Estonian economy has grown nearly tenfold, with a well-developed information technology sector central to that growth. Part of this growth strategy was the development of an education system to foster a high-tech, high-skill, high-wage economy.
The impressive and steady rebuilding of the Estonian education system after independence from the Soviet Union occurred in three main areas: developing a new national curriculum adapted to the needs of a new economy; revamping teacher training to focus on innovative teacher practices and teacher mentorships and requiring all teachers to have a master’s degree; and upgrading the status of vocational education and training. From 1998 to 2015, Estonia’s strategic direction for the nation was focused on the creation of an information society. As part of that strategy, the Tiger Leap project, started in 1998, put in place a computer science curriculum for all secondary school students. This has since expanded to all students in all grades, with an emphasis not just on programming but on problem-solving skills and logical thinking.
Estonia developed and adopted a new national curriculum, beginning in the 1997-98 school year. It focused on traditional academic subjects as well as skills such as self-management, learning to learn, communications, and entrepreneurship. It set national frameworks for each subject but, unlike the previous Soviet system, local schools have significant autonomy in deciding their curriculum. Schools are also entrusted with designing and implementing their own plan to change and improve education to take into account the needs of the local area, school staff, parents, and students, and the school’s resources and capacity. Amendments to the school curriculum can be submitted to the school’s board of trustees, students’ board, or teachers’ council. Estonia coupled this new curriculum with a revamping of teacher education in the country in order to strengthen teachers’ capacity to focus on critical thinking skills for the new IT economy Estonia was building and serve a diverse set of students. Teacher education now includes mentorships with master teachers.
Estonia has also focused on upgrading its vocational education system, which serves about 30 percent of its upper secondary school students. In 1999, the country created a national skills qualifications system, developed national standards for vocational education, and established regional vocational training centers across the country. Almost all large employers and more than half of small firms participate in the system, which offers training places to all students in this system. Estonia is currently trying to expand this system further and develop a new system of apprenticeship training. Estonia has one of the lower rates of youth not in education or the workforce in the OECD, at just 4.2 percent for 15-19 year olds in 2016, compared to the OECD average of 6 percent.
Despite Estonia’s reforms, the country’s education system still faces challenges. Estonia’s qualified teaching force is underpaid relative to teachers internationally and to other similarly educated professions, and the teaching profession is aging, indicating that the country is struggling to recruit new teachers. Policymakers and unions have tried to address these issues by raising teacher salaries incrementally and developing a new career ladder structure for teachers, but they acknowledge there is still much more work to be done.
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ESTONIA PISA MEAN SCORES 2015
Estonian 68.7%; Russian 24.8%; Ukranian 1.7%; Belarusian 1%; Finn 0.6%; Other 3.2%
$38.45 billion; $29,300 per Capita
Services: 68.4%; Industry: 28.1%; Agriculture: 3.5%
Unemployment: 6.8%; Youth Unemployment: 14.3%
Secondary School Completion: 91%